Three Observations From Startup Grind Europe 2016 For Students And Startups Looking To Work Together

My work on computing student employability, along with my wider interest in entrepreneurship, puts me in regular contact with companies of all sizes. In recent years, I’ve developed a particularly affinity for technology startups.

Technology startups are useful places for students to work and gain experience. For those students who are willing to take the risk, the rewards of joining a startup in its early stages can be huge if the startup takes off.

I was able to attend the Startup Grind Europe 2016 conference, a one-day event aimed at bringing together startups of all sizes for a series of presentations and what were called fireside discussions (read, structured chat-show style interviews in front of a live audience).

Startup Grind Europe was an interesting experience. I met some cool people, including several wanting advice from an academic perspective, or looking to see if I was suited as an investor.

One disappointment I did have was that I totally failed to encourage any computing students to attend with me. That was a shame, as there were certainly jobs and internships on the table, as well as many tips designed to help students when they did progress to look for employment or to launch their own startup.

I collected some of my immediate thoughts (read my tweets) from the day in this Storify.

There were no shortage of interesting nuggets of information shared, but I want to pick up on three areas that should be of particular interest to students looking to progress their career within the startup scene.

 

1 – The Startup Market For Matching Candidates With Jobs Is Saturated

I keep seeing the same so-called disruptive ideas looking to match candidates with potential jobs come up again and again. I spoke to two main players during the conference who wanted to tell me how this was their business plan. I spoke to another similar startup a couple of weeks back. I also saw a further recruiter exhibiting at the event, although I didn’t capture the details of how their technological solution worked. On top of this, I know of a student who worked in a company moving within the startup space matching jobs and candidates several years back.

The current premise seems to be that data-driven recruitment is the way forward. Now, it’s not long since this type of recruitment just included automated scanning of candidate LinkedIn profiles in order to find those who might be a match for a particular job.

The latest systems are more sophisticated. For example, they use personality tests to recommend companies for people to work for, or they analyse how closely a candidate will fit within company culture based on the information they’ve published on social media.

The main differentiators within these startups seems to be in the size and type of their user bases. These include both people wanting employment and the companies they’re working with who offer employment. For instance, several startups now focus solely on the job-hungry student market. Others focus on a particular type of employers. Marketing employees to other startups also seems to be in vogue. To me, this does rather suggest that startups have more money to spend than I would otherwise have assumed.

There may be a startup market here, but my recommendation is that this area is just too crowded for anything other than for an idea that is really original and tightly marketed.

I also overheard a discussion where people I took to be potential startup investors were expressing the same concern about overexposure regarding dating sites.

 

2 – Startups Are Struggling To Recruit Technical Candidates With An Entrepreneurial Mindset

Several speakers stressed that the first employee of a startup needs to be very carefully chosen and that this person would likely make or break the future success of the startup. Other speakers discussed the difficulty of finding employees who possessed the necessary skillset, generally requiring both technical and business skills.

You might think that startups would provide an ideal opportunity for students, but for many, this is not the case. The challenge here is that most students are not all-rounders and many of the most technically able graduates have no interest in moving into a combined role like the one being requested. The best graduates are also snapped up by the traditional companies. The idea that every student is a potential entrepreneur and is interested in the startup world is often pushed, but it’s a false one.

What that does mean is that students who do want to join leading startups at an early stage, perhaps as a Chief Technical Officer, should be looking to identify their weak skill points and correct them. That may mean gaining additional programming experience, but more likely, this means engaging with the startup culture and developing the skills needed to pitch and present. I’ve covered the benefits of hackathons on the blog several times and these offer an excellent way for students to simulate the skills needed by startups, as well as to provide for CV enhancement.

I did hear one of the speakers demeaning the lack of JavaScript teaching on Computer Science degrees. Although I’m not completely in agreement here that this isn’t covered, I would hope that students wanting to work in startups would be looking to learn additional technical skills for themselves to supplement the core subject knowledge and principles taught at university.

 

3 – Computing Students Need To Have A Developed Professional Online Presence

I was one of the first people in the UK to promote the need for students to have a developed professional online presence and to use this to present themselves positively on social media. Since then, I’ve provided many staff development workshops on the subject, developed podcasts to help students and published findings as academic papers.

For Computing and Computer Science students, the need for a developed professional online presence and portfolio is even greater than for many others students. That’s one more reason I’ve encouraged students to work on open source projects, develop software at hackathons and publish on Github.

During the conference, Leela Srinivasan from Lever listed the 10 sites that she believed best for finding talented employees to work on students.

Students looking to work for a startup or for summer experience could do far worse than reverse engineering this list. As well as being visible online, having even a simple app on an app store demonstrated additional skills and the difference maker mindset that so appeals to startups. Posting valuable technical information online is also a good indicator of student talent.

 

Take Advantage Of Opportunities

I do have to stress how valuable events like Startup Grind are for students and for startup companies, but they are also valuable to others on the fringe side of those movements.

Just tweeting at an event like Startup Grind is an excellent way to grow a professional reach. It helps to share the event with people who couldn’t attend, helps to promote the companies involved and helps with the development of professional contacts. And, I can tell you that the reach from many of my tweets was massive.

I’m continually interested in working with startups, consulting with them, providing access to students and helping students to gain opportunities. For companies looking to share the knowledge that they’ve gained during their startups, student (and academic) audiences are also perfect for that. Feel free to talk to me if I can help further.

Why I’m Working With Student Entrepreneurs To Add Gamification To Programming Learning – And How You Can Get Involved

Students Find Learning Programming Challenging

I taught my first computer programming class way back in September 2000. There, I helped HND students learn the joys of JavaScript programming, mainly integrated within simple HTML websites, using form input to generate standard output.

For many years after that, programming became a standard part of my teaching, often accompanied by interface design concepts through HCI. As well as JavaScript, I’ve taught C and most notably Java. I’ve always been a reflective practitioner and way back in 2005 I participated in a Disciplinary Commons aimed at improving the teaching of programming within the UK. Here is the programming portfolio that I developed during that Disciplinary Commons.

One of my observations, which will be of little surprise to anyone involved with teaching students to program, is that many people find programming difficult. This is a concern, as programming is core to many jobs that are open to Computing graduates, and even where jobs where programming is not a core aspect, assume that students have some understanding of it.

Although my direct teaching class contact has reduced substantially as I’ve taken on other managerial roles, I’ve been working on areas to help motivate students to be interested in programming and for them to put the time in required to become proficient at programming. I’ve been encouraging students to attend hackathon competitions and I’ve been supporting their attendance at hackathons. There are several presentations on this area in progress, but briefly, this has helped students to work on real-world examples, gain intensive programming practice time and to develop their team participation skills. I’ve also worked with Codio, who provide an online platform for learning programming within a web browser and my colleagues at Coventry University are trialing the use of Codio within their first year programming modules to make this subject more accessible to students.

Using Gamification To Support The Teaching Of Programming

The idea of using gamification to encourage progress and participation has been around for a long time, although the exact origins of the term are debated. The term gamification itself does not appear to have made it into popular use until 2010, when it was mostly associated with adding reward aspects to games in order to encourage players to continue with them (and ultimately to spend more money with the company in question).

The more widespread and current use of the gamification term relates to applying similar techniques to those that would be used to design successful games to other aspects of life. A simple example relates to the online question and answer site Quora, where answers given can receive Upvotes, a form of community recognition, as well as badges for areas such as the Most Viewed Writer in different categories. These gamification aspects encourage those people answering questions to return to the site and subsequently help to generate fresh written content for Quora. I provide answers to areas I’m familiar with on Quora when the opportunity allows. You can check out my Quora profile here.

As I’ve identified, there are challenges with getting students to engage with learning programming. It’s here where I think that gamification can encourage students to participate more with active programming learning and ideally to collaborate with their peers during that process.

For instance, it would be simple to set programming challenges for students to work through and receive badges, or ranking positions within a leaderboard. It should also be possible to involve students in generating challenges and trying to encourage that the gamified elements are at the correct academic level. Some of the larger programming sites, where people self-teach themselves to develop software, have already started to include elements of gamification. There have also been several academic studies, although many classed as gamification look much more at adding an overarching theme to modules to make them seen more game like. There is certainly potential for more work in this area

Our Plans For The Further Development Of eduLevel And How You Can Help

I was impressed by the winning entry at the BCUHack hackathon, a 24-hour hackathon that I arranged for students. Here, the students came up with an innovative idea, whereby they allowed Python programming evaluation questions to be submitted to a database and processed using a Twitter hashtag. Other people could then connect to a site automatically generated through the user submitted questions and try and work out the correct answers, for which they received a score. The system was unique, in that only the questions needed supplying and not the valid answers. The user interaction therefore indicated elements of gamification.

BCUHack_eduLevel

The system, known as eduLevel, has been subsequently developed through hackathons and other activities into a more complete solution. Working with the team of students, Daniel Pacheco, Jacques Ryan, Michael Senior and Alex Wiley, we intend to use the core idea from BCUHack, the user-generated content and automated assessing of solutions, to create a robust prototype to make learning programming fun. Because eduLevel is web-based, this can be used by students of all ages, although the team has current links with Coventry University and Birmingham City University to more formally trial eduLevel within the classroom. Integrated learner analytics will also make eduLevel useful to the staff who are tracking and supporting student progress.

There are several ways that we can drive the development of eduLevel forward, but we have entered eduLevel into the JISC Supporting Technology Startup Projects competition.

The JISC competition provides a platform to allow eduLevel to gain entrepreneurial support and to reach a larger audience, where this style of additional programming help for students is desperately needed.

In order to progress through the stages of the competition and to gain funding, eduLevel does need to receive votes. It is a quick process, just enter a vote and verify this through email.

You can vote here:

https://elevator.jisc.ac.uk/e/startup-projects-2016/idea/unilevel-learning-programming-th

eduLevelWe’d also welcome any comments about the future development of eduLevel, any ideas and any offers of support. I have been constantly trying to demonstrate to computing students that enterprise is a valid option for them and that hackathons are a valid to route to professional and useful employment, and I hope that the eduLevel case study can be seen as a positive step in that direction.

 

MicroHack 2015 Review – Student Programming Competition Using Microsoft Azure

One of the initiatives we’ve taken at Birmingham City University this year to introduce new student opportunities and improve student employability on the BSc Computer Science course has been to encourage students to participate in Hackathons.

These Hackathons are typically time-constrained programming contests, where students work in small teams to create prototype software that meets designated requirements. Students then need to pitch or present their software to a panel.

We have been supporting sending students to Hackathon events held around the UK, with the aid of the new Hackathon and Computing Society. Students participating have been benefiting from improving their programming knowledge, exploring new technologies, meeting industrial contacts and developing interpersonal skills.

We have also recently held MicroHack, our first internal Hackathon. This was designed to improve student confidence and encourage them to participate in the external Hackathon events.

BCUMicroHackProgrammers

MicroHack was held on the afternoon and early evening of Wednesday 16 December 2015, with teams required to develop prototype software on the open theme of personal or professional development for students, with submissions using the Microsoft Azure cloud hosting platform. Oliver Vlaytchev worked with me on the organisation of the event and Liam Biddle arranged funding through Microsoft.

There was a real social buzz for the event. The student participation and results are well captured in the Storify.

The Hackathon succeeded on multiple levels, including raising the profile of the technology of our sponsor, engaging students with innovations and external practice and generating good publicity for Birmingham City University. The teams that participated presented some excellent ideas, worthy of being released products with more development time. We did run into a few minor administrative issues regarding the smooth running of the day, which are useful to know about for future larger scale events, but none which impacted on student enjoyment. We did discovered how important it is to have a large team of staff running things, all of whom have designated roles and duties.

This event was a precursor to a Hackathon with 24 hours of programming, which will be running on 29 February to 1 March 2016. We are open to ideas of technologies to use and encourage students to engage with – interested companies can feel free to contact me for more details. Importantly, we have a full university marketing push behind this BCU Hack event, which will be of benefit to everyone involved.

Following MicroHack, I’m even more confident that Hackathons are of value for students looking to enhance their programming skills. They match up well with the Birmingham City University course on BSc Computer Science and its aim to produce graduates who are work-ready for the real world. I fully intend to continue to push Hackathons and their benefits and to find ways to get more students involved with these.

Working With The Higher Education Academy Changing The Learning Landscape Project

One of the projects I’ve been working on recently has been related to a Higher Education Academy project allowing academics to explore further use of social media within their teaching (and so benefit the experiences of their own students).

I’m already fairly social media aware, but I jumped upon this as an opportunity to explore podcasting, through a project turning some of the existing resources I’d created on Professional Online Presences into social media.

Here’s the slides from a short talk I put together at the start of the project (they are also available on my SlideShare account).

I’m further along with the project now, but I have been keeping a short blog about the project, the podcast development and the successes and frustrations coming along with it.

http://professionalonlinepresence.com/changingthelearninglandscape

Depending when you read this, there may still be more work to be done on the blog and the main site, but I hope it will provide another indication of the sort of podcast development and social media innovation which is possible within higher education. No doubt I will also write more about the project on this blog as well.

Is Employability A Local Issue?

Much of the focus of my recent teaching, research and presentations have been based around student employability.

To me, it’s very important that students are given every opportunity to achieve a career in the academic discipline that they’ve been studying. As a Computing academic, much of my approach is to look at the skills needed for a Computing career, encompassing both technical and inter-personal aspects, as well as helping students to document and present what they’ve done in a manner that is easily accessible for employers.

However, several incidents recently have led me to believe the employability focused approach is one that is most common in the UK, and does not easily extend internationally.

At a general conference I attended on Computing Education, the focus was almost entirely on standard technical skills, with very little interest shown in employability, or thinking about what is needed for students after they complete a course.

I attended a workshop, and one of the discussions was about employability not being a core concept. The closest equivalent was looking at life skills (of which setting students up for a career could be argued to be a part), but there seemed little consensus that universities should be working around that role.

I also wrote a draft of a paper recently, which was generally well-received, but one of the most striking reviewer comments related to something I wrote about employability, that this was the end aim of university study. The reviewer made it clear that this different greatly from their interpretation, and presented the view that any piece written to involve employment should be repositioned from a sociological aspect.

Despite these different views, I still believe strongly in making sure that students are prepared for employment. Much of my continued research relates to the ways in which the selection processes that get students into jobs are changing. Employability certainly isn’t a static area, and it is one which needs continual updates to match the changes in the wider world.

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